Endgame

In Yom Kippur and 2nd Lebanon wars, IDF had to decide where it wanted to be when shooting stopped.

By ABRAHAM RABINOVICH
February 7, 2008 12:59
Endgame

soldiers 88. (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)

Like trumpet blasts, UN announcements of a pending cease-fire in an Israeli-Arab war inevitably sent the IDF into a final charge aimed at achieving maximal territorial gains before the clock ran out. And not infrequently, even after it ran out. One of the most unsettling chapters in the Winograd Committee report relates how when that trumpet sounded in the Second Lebanon War, most of the troops didn't charge. "Operation Change of Direction 11," as the final attack was called, "was intended to change altogether the reality in southern Lebanon and the image of the military operation." Launched two days before the cease-fire, the attack followed a month of agonizing indecisiveness. Units had now been brought up to strength; there had been time enough for orderly preparation; planning was comprehensive, missions clear and the enemy few in numbers. "Nevertheless, most units did not carry out their mission," says the report in a tight-lipped summation redolent with understatement. Although the army wanted 96 hours for the push to the Litani River, it was granted only 60. In the end, however, it halted the attack far from its goal with 24 hours still remaining unused. While some units fought well, said the report, most busied themselves evacuating casualties, a task that was to have been left to specialized units. Others found additional reasons not to advance. Divisions in the field just stopped moving and the high command did not even attempt to urge them on. In its oddly laconic performance, the IDF failed, in the committee's words, to "strive for victory" and created a worrisome image of incompetence, if not trepidation, that has encouraged Israel's enemies. Scary. Scary enough to take the trouble of reassuring ourselves with a glance backwards that it was not always thus. Thanks to Hizbullah's wake-up call, it can be presumed that whoever runs the country will not permit it to be thus again ever again in future. The dreamlike paralysis which gripped the army in Lebanon in 2006 was due principally to a dysfunctional command hierarchy which could not make up its mind about what needed doing. It could not even persuade the troops that they were engaged in a war and that it was crucial to win. "Lack of clarity and indecisiveness in orders, giving permission for missions to be postponed or even canceled, created a feeling of lack of seriousness and lack of urgency," states the Winograd report. Some graybeards in the Lebanese campaign had fought in the Yom Kippur War 33 years before. Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Dan Halutz was one of them. If the ghost of Lebanon is to be effaced, it would be salutary to reintroduce the memory of the IDF's performance in the epic 1973 conflict into the national consciousness to provide models of decision making and fortitude. THE BEGINNING of the Yom Kippur War is the part best remembered by those who remember. Within hours of the massive surprise attack by Egypt and Syria, reservists, shedding their civilian clothes and mind-sets as they went, were plunging outnumbered and without hesitation into the fiercest tank battles since World War II. But the war's end was almost as dramatic, a race against cease-fire deadlines that, in contrast with "Change of Direction 11," was vigorously pushed home. That final battle altered the outcome of the war and set in motion a dynamic that led to the peace treaty with Egypt. The turnabout began on the 12th day of the war when elements of Maj.-Gen. Ariel Sharon's division reached the Suez Canal and threw a pontoon bridge across without the Egyptians being aware of it. Close to midnight, Maj.-Gen. Avraham Adan crossed with his division into "Africa," as the territory west of the canal was dubbed. Sharon shortly followed. Egyptian president Anwar Sadat had until then adamantly rejected calls for a cease-fire, calls to which Israel, which had been badly bloodied by the surprise attack, gave tacit consent. Two Egyptian armies had crossed the canal into Sinai with the opening of the war and were strongly ensconced. The IDF was unable to dislodge them and Sadat was in no hurry to give up his advantage. Now, however, with the Israeli crossing of the canal, the strategic balance began to rapidly shift. At a meeting in the underground war room in Tel Aviv, the "Pit," chief of General Staff David Elazar met with the General Staff the day after the crossing to discuss options. As his deputy, Maj.-Gen. Yisrael Tal, put it, the war-of-survival stage was over and the IDF now had to decide where it wanted to be when the shooting stopped. Elazar dismissed the idea of advancing on Cairo. Apart from the danger of Soviet intervention on the side of their Egyptian client, he wanted to avoid being overextended with long, vulnerable supply lines. After a thorough airing of the options, it was decided that the objective would be to cut off the Third Army on the Sinai bank by severing its supply lines on the "African" bank. As Sharon pushed north toward Ismailiya and Adan south towards Suez City, Sadat refused to admit that the initiative was slipping from him. But two days after the Israeli crossing, his chief of staff, Gen. Saad el-Shazly, visited the headquarters of the Second Army at Ismailiya. He was shaken by the condition of the army, whose commander had suffered a heart attack, and by what he learned of the growing Israeli presence west of the Suez Canal. When he returned to Cairo he discovered that the condition of the Third Army was even worse. Shazly urged war minister Ismail to withdraw four armored brigades from Sinai to counterattack the IDF forces on the west side of the canal. Ismail invited Sadat to meet that night with Shazly and other senior generals, including the commander of the air force, Hosni Mubarak, Egypt's future ruler. After hearing them out, Sadat said "we will not withdraw a single soldier from the east to the west." To do so, he feared, would weaken Egypt's position when negotiations began. Returning to his residence, however, he asked that the Soviet ambassador be summoned. Just 24 hours earlier Sadat had rejected a plea by the visiting Soviet president, Alexei Kosygin, that he agree to a cease-fire. Now he asked the Kremlin to push through an immediate cease-fire in the Security Council. Adan was in a mountaintop command post in the Israeli enclave west of the canal when he learned that the Security Council had adopted a cease-fire resolution that would go into effect in 12 hours, 6:52 p.m. Israeli time. The Third Army had still not been cut off and Adan proposed to Southern Command that he continue his drive south until its last road connection to Cairo was severed. Defense minister Moshe Dayan arrived at the command post in mid-morning by helicopter. The political dimension was now uppermost for him. More important than severing the roads to Cairo, he said, was to create an Israeli presence on the African bank of the canal between Ismailiya and Suez City to offset the equivalent Egyptian gains on the Sinai bank when negotiations got under way. At this point, Israel held only the narrow stretch of canal between the Second and Third armies through which Adan and Sharon's divisions had crossed to the African shore. Adan said he would still like to sever the Cairo roads, then turn east and sprint for the canal before the cease-fire went into effect. Dayan said there was not enough time to do both. Adan reluctantly called off his southern drive and ordered his brigades to fight their way eastward back to the canal. At 6:50 p.m., Southern Command called Adan to remind him that the cease-fire would begin in two minutes. "Repeat, please," said Adan, jokingly feigning communication problems. "I can't hear you." But the shooting on both sides did die down. DARKNESS HAD already descended when the first of Adan's units, a tank battalion commanded by Lt.-Col. Eliyashiv Shimshi, reached the dense growth of the agricultural strip on the bank of the canal at 6:45 p.m. All about were bogs and minefields, as well as an unseen enemy whose intentions were not clear. Shimshi had his tanks form a rectangular laager in an open field, guns pointing outward, with halftracks sheltering in the center. It was not long before fire was opened from the surrounding darkness. A salvo of tank fire silenced it. In the coming hours, the cycle would be repeated periodically and some of the tanks were disabled by RPGs. Shimshi asked his brigade commander for permission to pull out and the request went up the chain of command. But the order came back that he must remain until morning when UN observers could verify the Israeli presence on the canal bank. With casualties mounting, however, and the situation plainly untenable, permission finally was granted at 2 a.m. The vehicles, with difficulty, escaped the Egyptian encirclement and headed for what the maps indicated to be a bridge across the Sweetwater Canal which ran through the agricultural strip. When the officer in the lead tank reached it, he found that there was no bridge. Shimshi contacted brigade. After a pause, the brigade intelligence officer reported back that there should be a bridge under the surface. The lead tank gingerly descended the canal bank and found the underwater bridge to be there. Two miles out into the desert, Shimshi halted his column and had the men gather round to count heads. They had lost nine tanks and several personnel carriers, and every one of the surviving vehicles had been damaged by RPGs, but there were only two dead and seven wounded. Word of the near destruction of Shimshi's battalion fed the unhappiness with which the cease-fire was being viewed by almost the entire military hierarchy. It was Adan, as the general in command of the key sector, who felt the missed opportunity most keenly. He was aware that Dayan, in the Six Day War, had ordered the IDF to halt 10 kilometers short of the Suez Canal but that officers in the field had nevertheless brought the army to the water's edge. Elazar himself, as commander of the Northern Front in that war, had ignored the cease-fire to complete the capture of the Golan Heights. Adan was looking for a chance to likewise "finish the job," which in this case meant completing the encirclement of the Third Army. About midnight, he notified Southern Command of the plight of Shimshi's battalion and other incidents of Egyptian fire. In these circumstances, he said, he intended to continue fighting in the morning. Southern Command ordered him to maintain the cease-fire but he took that as a pro-forma response that was not the final word. He spent the rest of the night preparing his brigades for continuation of the battle on the assumption that the high command would in the end order an all-out advance. At 8 a.m., Elazar informed Dayan of the shooting episodes. "Last night they destroyed nine of our tanks and now they're attacking in a number of places, trying to grab territory back from us. I want to tell Southern Command it's free to act in the Third Army sector." The defense minister gave his approval. Adan dispatched a force to cut the last road connections between the Third Army and Cairo, while the bulk of his division cleared Egyptian forces from the banks of the canal down to Suez City. When Sadat learned that 30,000 men of his Third Army were cut off in the desert, he sent a message to president Richard Nixon asking for American intervention. It was the first time since the Six Day War that an Egyptian leader had directly addressed an American administration and would mark the beginning of Egypt's strategic turning from the Soviet Union to the United States. A new cease-fire was set for 36 hours after the initial cease-fire was to have gone into effect. Israel said it would be willing to discuss the fate of the Third Army, whose water supply it now also cut off, if the Egyptians agreed to unprecedented direct talks between their representatives and Israeli representatives. US secretary of state Henry Kissinger, serving as intermediary, was astonished when Sadat agreed to this on condition that supplies be permitted to reach the beleaguered army. On October 28, three weeks after the war's outbreak, Egyptian Gen. Mohammed Abdel Ghani el-Gamasy and IDF Maj.-Gen. Aharon Yariv met in a tent set up at kilometer 101 on the desert road to Cairo. Those talks would be the first step in a process leading to a peace treaty six years later. THE CONTRAST between the IDF performances in 1973 and 2006 could not be more glaring. In the Yom Kippur War, the army had fought with verve and supreme dedication to mission. It suffered more than 2,600 dead and more than 7,000 wounded in 18 days. But from a disastrous opening it had achieved one of the most remarkable turnabouts in military history. After two weeks of almost continuous fighting, the tank crews and infantrymen were exhausted, but the only substantial armored units remaining between them and Cairo if the government chose to go there were two untested brigades, Algerian and Libyan. Elazar, on a visit to the troops forming up in Sinai for the canal crossing, had been exhilarated by the panache and self-confidence he found. "They're on top of things," he declared when he returned to the Pit, noting that the tank crews radiated the confidence of World War II fighters with years of combat behind them. "Whoever feels depressed in these dark corridors should go into the field and see the boys. You'll come back in a grand mood." Dayan, who visited the front almost every day, told the cabinet that the troops had fought wisely and with determination but too boldly. "It's a wonderful thing and a terrible thing. We have to slow down." The Lebanese campaign in 2006 was not without successes. The devastating initial air strike will certainly give pause to Hizbullah and others before provoking Israel in the future. In the limited ground fighting that occurred, much of Hizbullah's infrastructure in south Lebanon was destroyed and Israeli intelligence would learn, retroactively, that the organization was reeling from its losses. But as a ground army the IDF got failing grades. It displayed low operational capability and inferior staff work, the committee found. For weeks, the troops were subject to conflicting orders, lack of spirited direction and long periods of pointless waiting while senior commanders argued among themselves about strategy and tactics. The high command failed at strategic thinking and planning. It failed at properly examining options and choosing among them. In the end, the troops lost confidence in their hesitant leaders and the leaders seemed to lose confidence in themselves. An important difference between the two wars is that the first was existential and the motivation of the troops self-evident. In Lebanon, the war was not existential. The Winograd Committee noted, in fact, that the country's leaders did not see themselves embarking on war when they approved the initial air strike and still did not view it as war when they were already in it. This was reflected by what the committee deemed overconcern about risking casualties, which induced a caution more appropriate to a policing action than to a war. This mind-set filtered down to the troops and commanders in the field. Another difference is that in 1973 the troops had had intensive training since the Six Day War, six years previously. In 2006 many of the troops had been deprived of training in their specific military skills, particularly tank crews, for years. The most important difference, however, is in the leadership. Dayan, as defense minister, had a near breakdown in the war but he provided intelligent input on both the military and political levels throughout and remained a charismatic figure. Prime minister Golda Meir's input was limited, but the decisions she made proved retroactively to have been the correct ones, including her decision to order mobilization hours before the war broke out while refraining from a preemptive air strike. The key Israeli figure in the Yom Kippur War was Lt.-Gen. Elazar. His was the steady hand that held it all together despite incredible pressures in the opening days of the war when the country to some seemed doomed. It is unfair to compare Halutz and Elazar as army commanders. The former was a pilot parachuted into command of the ground army in an idiosyncratic move by Ariel Sharon. Elazar was an outstanding fighter and leader of men ever since the battle of the San Simon Monastery in Jerusalem in the War of Independence in which he fought as a young officer with the Palmah. However, comparisons of their method of leadership are relevant. Halutz has been criticized for not consulting sufficiently with the General Staff and for "hearing, not listening" when he did. Dissident opinions were reportedly not permitted to be voiced beyond the confines of army headquarters. A wartime member of the General Staff told Israel Radio last week that Halutz had descended to the underground war room only once during the war. Elazar, despite his vast experience as a battle leader, welcomed, indeed sought, the opinion of others. "I'd be happy, and you don't know how happy, to hear your thoughts," he told his officers when coping with dilemmas. Almost every day he held lively staff meetings in the Pit and briefed the cabinet. At his own initiative, he made a point of bringing to the cabinet with him periodically the most outspoken dissident voice on the General Staff, his own deputy, Tal, who argued for more caution on the battlefield. To recall the Yom Kippur War is hardly to recall "the good old days." It was a terrible time and the trauma of that event lay heavy on the nation for years. But against the background of the recent war, it offers models of behavior, national and personal, that merit our attention. The writer is author of The Yom Kippur War. abra@netvision.net.il


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